We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

What is Modern Monetary Theory?

I commend this to samizdata readers, one in a series by Tim Worstall apparently:

Modern Monetary Theory is, in one sense, just reality. In the other and more important discussion MMT is a simple ignorance of the original question being asked.

Hit the link, read the whole thing.

Humanitarian Combat Fatigue

Recently I had the chance to talk to someone from a boat that had been in the mediterranean rescuing migrants – not one of the PC frauds that are the final stage of the people-smuggling operation, determined to land the ‘rescued’ in Europe or not at all, but just would-be humanitarian rescuers and returners.

What I was unprepared to learn about was something that sounded a bit like combat fatigue – the kind when a man says vehemently “I don’t want to talk about it”, and two hours later can’t stop talking about it. The people-smugglers pack them in, so the engine room is always crowded – maybe with those who did not pay or promise as much as others, maybe with those who were rashly eager, boarded first and got sent below, or maybe randomly. The ventilation is never adequate, and the people-smugglers never care, so typically half are dead by the time they are intercepted. I think the man who didn’t want to talk about it and couldn’t stop talking about it had cleared one too many such scenes – or maybe several too many.

Such accounts reinforce the impression I get from anecdotes on samizdata or elsewhere.

– Firstly, this is a commercial operation in which the people labelled ‘refugees’ are indeed really migrants but they are also more (or do I mean less?) than that. They are a commodity – a collaborating (and also pressured and deceived) commodity.

– Secondly, it is news to me if this aspect gets on the mainstream news. Is it just me (maybe it is – maybe I’ve missed watching counter-examples), or does mainstream media news consistently obscure this basic aspect of the migrant operation?

UBI is a political cancer, and will kill us if it is not extirpated

My topic today is Universal Basic Income, a.k.a. UBI, which I regard as nothing less than a cancer of the mind, and which I fear may soon become a cancer on society. The origin of this metastatic neoplasm was supposedly innocent intellectual woolgathering by libertarian economists, but it may yet end far less innocently.

Most libertarians understand that it is insufficient to have good intentions for a proposed policy, as good intent does not imply good results. In the end, all policies are implemented not in a utopia inhabited by angels, but rather in a society composed of self-interested humans. Laws are administered not by divine spirits but by politicians and bureaucrats who are themselves self-interested, and who possess all the foibles of the flesh.

Advocates always say social engineering would work if ‘done right’, but the possibility of ‘doing it right’ is zero in the real world. Public choice economics is no more avoidable than physics; you can no more handwave it away than you can handwave away the second law of thermodynamics.

In some theoretical sense, of course, physics seems more rigid than the rules of human behaviour, because individual humans can to some extent choose how to behave, but in practice, once you have huge masses of people involved, the law of large numbers takes over, and the force of their natural behaviour is only slightly less inexorable than gravitation. One needs to remind oneself of that early and often when thinking about proposed political policies, even in an academic context.

In spite of this principle being well understood by libertarians, the notion of UBI has taken root in parts of our community, and it has now even spread into the wider society, having infected the minds of many intellectuals on the left and right.

For those that are not familiar with the term, UBI (Universal Basic Income) means, roughly, “the government should guarantee everyone some minimum level of income whether they work or not”.

The notion began simply enough. Some economists observed that there are a myriad of intersecting government programs for the poor (in many countries, dozens) which distort behaviour in horrible ways and which cost a fortune in overhead to administer. This is where the problem of UBI begins, in the hubris of the armchair philosopher. “What if”, these economists asked, “we can’t get rid of the dole entirely (even though that would be better) but we could at least make it efficient by replacing the entire morass with a single program, say a negative income tax?”

Trained to explore ideas (no matter how bad) for a living, said academic economists then vigourosly explored this impossible hypothetical world in which they could not get rid of the dole but could somehow get politicians to perfectly implement their hypothetical improved alternative, and proceeded to write lots of papers about it.

Again, this academic musing was already a utopian impossibility, for in the real world, there are interests that would act to block the elimination of existing welfare schemes and insist that the new scheme be added to the current ones rather than replacing them. This sort of thing is routine, of course; originally, VAT schemes were thought of by academic economists as a less distorting replacement for income taxes but ended up added in addition.

The interest groups arrayed against replacement of existing welfare schemes range from the bureaucrats whose job it is to administer said schemes (and who for whom ‘efficiency’ means unemployment), to the vast range of contractors employed in providing benefits of one sort or another, to the politicians who get votes and power in exchange for largesse paid for with other people’s money, to the current recipients of existing benefit schemes who will correctly reason that the notion behind ‘efficiency’ is not to increase their benefits. There’s no advantage in replacement for any member of the existing system, and thus, it was a non-starter to begin with.

This did not, however, prevent many people from falling in love with the idea, as wouldn’t-it-be-ever-so-elegant-if-it-could-happen so often trumps this-is-reality in the minds of those saying ‘what if’ over a pint or seven late in the evening at the pub next to the economics department offices.

Oh, and of course, a form of the negative income tax was created in the United States under the name of the ‘earned income tax credit’; as might have been predicted in advance, it was added to existing welfare programs rather than in any way replacing them.

From this simple yet benighted beginning as a completely unrealistic thought experiment, the idea of UBI gained traction and then, as most cancers do, developed a mutant and even more virulent cell line, one that allowed it to spread and grow in the minds not only of leftists (who are already inclined towards redistribution of all sorts) but those on the right who are inclined to view ordinary people as useless.

We are now informed that UBI is a solution to a different problem as well. We are informed, in not-so-hushed tones, that the rise of new technologies like Artificial Intelligence will soon automate away most jobs, resulting in a vast class of people who will be unemployable in any trade whatsoever, which will consequently lead to mass unemployment, and that said permanently unemployable people will starve to death if we don’t find ways to provide them with income.

We are told we thus must guarantee a minimum income for all, without regard to whether they are capable of earning a living on their own, or we’ll have riots on our hands once AI based systems become ubiquitous. They claim that we should, nay, must, promise everyone some minimal subsistence income, whether they work or not. This will provide the masses with the ability to survive, and thus society will be preserved.

I note that this ‘automation will lead to mass unemployment’ scenario contradicts centuries of experience in which, rather than leading to mass starvation, various forms of automation have always led to vast increases in human welfare as per capita productivity skyrockets, and old jobs have simply been replaced with new ones.

However, we’re told that this time, it’s different. “We’ve never seen automation this thorough and extreme!” we’re told. “AIs can replace white collar workers, not just blue collar! No one will be useful any more!” Well, maybe. But as it has not happened yet, and Ricardo’s comparative advantage argument remains intact even if AIs exist, I remain quite skeptical that “this time, it’s different.”

Regardless, in their zeal to fix a problem that might or might not happen at an undefined time in the future, the UBI advocates may create a problem that’s far, far worse. (That’s even ignoring, for the moment, the fact that insisting that some people be allowed to live off of resources taken by force from others is deeply immoral.)

If you promise people an income regardless of whether they work or not, many will decide not to work, as not working is attractive. Once they have decided not to work, they become dependent on the state for their continued ability to survive while not working, and become inclined to vote for increased benefits. Starting as a safety net, the UBI will be seen as an ordinary way for people to live, and advocates will demand ever more. They will scream “no one can survive on £700 a month! It forces people to live in squalor! The UBI must be raised to £1200 a month!”, and then “£1200 is insulting when some earn millions! It must be £2000” and then “How can anyone raise a family on only £2000 a month with modern expenses in an expensive city! The UBI must rise to £3000” and on and on.

Elections, are, even at the best of times, an advance auction of stolen goods. If there’s a UBI, votes will hinge upon how much more generous with other people’s money one candidate is versus another. As benefits rise, more and more people will decide that they, too, would rather not be working, and join the class of people who only take and never make. Freed of the need to consider questions like “can we afford these children”, UBI recipients will feel happy raising larger families than they might otherwise, while those who work continue to feel the pinch of limited time and resources. If it’s truly available to all, UBI recipients will become a plurality of the populace, and then a majority, and from there, a death spiral is almost inevitable.

The larger the fraction of society on the dole, the more obviously foolish actually working will seem, the faster more people will go on the dole, and the faster the system will disintegrate. If UBI becomes a reality, most of the population is going to become unproductive, resentful of productive people, and strongly motivated to see increases in the UBI through ever increasing expropriation of the resources of the productive. Sure, we have some of that now with existing state benefits. With UBI, it will become vastly worse. Candidates buy votes now, but with UBI it will become an ever-accelerating race among politicians to see who can buy more votes with more resources stolen from an ever-shrinking productive minority. Perhaps the end could be staved off by making the franchise contingent on not being on UBI, but that’s a pipe dream; in the real world, the advocates will scream about the rich disenfranchising the poor and the like and it will never happen.

If almost everyone depends on the state for their survival, that’s the beginning of the end for that civilisation. A spiral towards a Soviet or Venezuelan style collapse is inevitable, and there’s no way to fight it in a democracy, because in a democracy, the majority get what they want, good and hard.

The only thing left for anyone who does not want to join those on the dole, anyone with assets, marketable skills, and an urge to produce, will be flight. Which will probably become illegal, because if you flee, you’re depriving the majority of your work. The system requires your slave labor to keep everyone else fed. Eventually, as in the Soviet Union, you will not even be allowed to leave.

Many advocates of UBI are probably well intentioned. That does not make the idea any less dangerously foolish; intentions do not matter much, and they matter practically not at all when an idea is sufficiently destructive. Of all the terrible ideas I’ve seen gripping the fevered imaginations of social engineers in recent years, this has been one of the worst. UBI is a political cancer, and will kill us if it is not extirpated.

Climate change scientists starved of media coverage

According to the Independent they are, anyway.

The study showed climate change deniers were featured in nearly 50 per cent more media articles than expert scientists.

Naturally, the Indy cements its point by putting a video of renowned climate scientist Greta Thunberg at the top of the article. They also put up some graphs and, discussing them, can not quite bring themselves to use the study’s terminology of CCC (climate change contrarian) and talk about the non-existent CCD (climate change denier) data set. A testament to the Indy’s devotion to reporting accurately the true official expert view.

The Indy even gives us a lovely example:

For an example of how some media outlets mistreat environmental issues – Fox News had a debate about the Trump administration’s move to weaken the Endangered Species Act yesterday.

A former senior Interior Department official was defending the act, while a random editor from the conservative website Townhall was defending Trump.

One of those people is vastly more qualified to talk about the act than the other – Clue: It’s the one who worked for the government…

So not about climate change, and “worked for the government” is a synonym for “scientist” as far as the Indy is concerned, it would seem. Good work, guys.

As for the study, I am curious about how they selected the media outlets for comparison, but I have not yet looked. And I wonder what would happen if we measured media attention given to non-expert climate change alarmists?

In any case, even on the face of it the study does not quite show what the Indy thinks it shows:

Here we show via direct comparison that contrarians are featured in 49% more media articles than scientists. Yet when comparing visibility in mainstream media sources only, we observe just a 1% excess visibility, which objectively demonstrates the crowding out of professional mainstream sources by the proliferation of new media sources, many of which contribute to the production and consumption of climate change disinformation at scale.

I guess “crowding out of professional mainstream sources” is something the Indy would want to play down. Other than that it is the same old story: the peasants are revolting and the nobility are afraid.

You’ll believe a water tower can fly

Some time in the next week or two, pending only FAA aproval, SpaceX is planning to fly Starhopper, a test device for their next generation Starship launch system. Starhopper looks like a water tower with an attached rocket engine, mostly because it is indeed a water tower with an attached rocket engine. Starhopper is planned to rise to 200 metres into the air and then land, testing control systems and engine technology. This is a follow-up to a previous 5 metre test flight.

The engine is a brand new design called Raptor, which has a high specific impulse, meaning it is unusually efficient. Eventually, Starship will use up to 41 Raptor engines.

The test flight will be an exciting moment. The reason space travel is so expensive is that conventional rockets get thrown away after only a single use. (Imagine how unaffordable a flight from London to Berlin would be if the aircraft were thrown out at the end of the trip.) While a Saturn V would cost roughly $1bn today, the fuel would only cost about $1m. The bulk of current spaceflight cost is thus the cost of expending an extremely expensive piece of capital equipment instead of reusing it.

So, there is an opportunity to reduce the marginal cost of getting objects into orbit by orders of magnitude. SpaceX have already achieved some re-usability with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. However, Starship will be both much bigger (it will lift 100T or more into low earth orbit compared to Falcon Heavy’s 65T) and is the first ever fully reusable orbital launch vehicle (Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy do not recover the second stage). It may even cost less to fly 100T into orbit than it currently does to launch a very small rocket like Rocket Lab’s Electron that lifts only 250kg to orbit at a price of about $7m.

Because it will be able to be refueled in orbit, it will also be able take that 100T to the moon or even Mars (albeit at additional cost because of the need for flights to loft the fuel.)

In other words, we are witnessing a revolution in space travel.

And with that stainless steel design, which can be transpiration cooled to avoid the use of heat shield tiles, it looks just like space travel was supposed to look back in the 50s.

Samizdata quote of the day

“By stifling his criticisms of human rights-abusing regimes, what Donald Trump may see as the projection of strength is surely viewed by America’s adversaries as weakness. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the United States for an attempted coup against his regime, and Trump calls to congratulate him on his suspicious election victory. North Korea murders and purges its nuclear negotiators and Trump gives Kim Jong-un a photo op on North Korean soil. Vladimir Putin counters American geopolitical and economic interests at nearly every turn, and the president can’t bring himself to say a bad word about the autocrat in the Kremlin. What American interest is being advanced by this servility?”

Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine.

Perils of alternate history wargaming

A father and son duo run a YouTube channel about historical tabletop wargaming called “Imperator Vespasian”. They run through demo games, talk about making and painting models and so on. Recently they were offline for about six months. They explain why in the following ten minute video:

“Unexpected side affects of Gaming! Channel update”

The two of them were creating a game called “A very British Civil War” set in an alternate-history 1938 in which Prime Minister Oswald Moseley was fighting to put down an anti-fascist rebellion. The British Union of Fascists was a playable faction. Here is a video they made about this game from six months ago.

Then the son’s school reported him to the police as a potential terrorist. Note that the father and son both say that the police were quite quick to realise that this case was not the best use of their time, and reserve their criticism for the school.

I am a little more sympathetic than are the “Imperator Vespasian” duo with the dilemma faced by schools over whether or not to bring the police in when they suspect a pupil is involved in crime as victim or perpetrator or both. The pair of them did make one unwise decision. Apparently their standard practice in their YouTube shows is to make announcements of what is happening in their games while “in character” for the various factions, with appropriate props as the backdrop. Fine when your prop is a medieval helmet, not so fine when it’s the lightning flash emblem of the BUF.

But was there really no one among the school staff who had ever wargamed? Or whose kids had wargamed, or whose kids’ friends had wargamed, or who was simply enough in touch with the lives of their male pupils to know that playing the Tyranids in Warhammer 40K does not mean you seek to literally devour all life? Given the nerdiness of historical tabletop gaming, I would have guessed that gamers were just as likely to end up as teachers as in the police force. So why did the police quickly get that this was fictional while the teachers did not?

Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight to and from the Moon has been covered extensively in a raft of books, television programmes and films. A few weeks ago I watched the Apollo 11 film of that name. This is a documentary that features, so the film-makers say, previously unseen footage, and it certainly is a remarkable film. One of the good things about it is that it does not involve any narration: the film and the action do the “talking”. I watched it on a large IMAX screen at London’s Science Museum. I heartily recommend it. I actually found it rather moving. That sequence of when Armstrong takes control of the Lunar Module and flies to the surface, with Aldrin counting out the altitude, knowing they have precious little fuel to spare, is one I can watch over and over. (Armstrong is one of my all-time heroes. The very fact that he conducted himself in such a modest way since the mission ended only reinforces that.)

The space missions of the 1960s were, of course, part of a much bigger set of actions involving the US, former Soviet Union and other select powers. Let there be no doubt: the Moon missions were a big “front” in the Cold War. We libertarians will debate whether all the spending on such a programme was justified (I will come back to this point in a bit) but it strikes me that the success of the Apollo missions were surely a valuable morale booster for the West and for America. It showed that for all the Soviets’ early successes in beating the US in some aspects of space flight, that by the mid to late 60s that edge had gone.

Putting the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin et al up there was a way for the US to poke Moscow in the eye. But it was about much more than that. It appears to me (born in May 1966) the product of a time when governments still had tremendous confidence in technology, as did much of wider society. And yet as we know, the end of the Moon programme coincided with events such as various environmentalist campaigns calling attention to the real/alleged damage Man was doing to the environment; it also overlapped with the Vietnam War, the oil price shock and the challenge to established Western assumptions about energy. And there was the rise of radical feminism and the Civil Rights campaign.

A lot of people have noted how the space programme contrasted with all the tumult and messiness of wider American/Western society at the time. At more or less the time that Armstrong was taking his “giant leap” for Mankind, Jimi Hendrix was playing his version of the Star Spangled Banner at muddy Woodstock (he’d probably be condemned by today’s left for being a reactionary conservative for playing it at all); Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc. Several major public figures, such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered. The space programme was, on the other hand, all clean, with white rockets and gleaming craft; it had a focus on scientific precision and a celebration of human efficacy. It was about what Man can do and achieve, given rational focus on a goal. It was also a very technocratic thing, and an example – which is often trotted out by politicians who like big vanity projects – of a big government effort actually working pretty well. (From the moment that JFK gave his speech about the Moon in 1962 it took just eight years to pull that feat off. It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.) The men (and some women) at NASA looked different from the rock musicians and protesters of the time: whenever I see photos and old films of the chaps at Mission Control, for example, they all have air force-style buzzcuts, narrow dark ties and have names like Dave, Deke and Al. They drive Corvettes , live in small neat homes with pools (this impresses a Brit) and talk with clipped Midwestern or occasionally more gravelly Texan accents. They play golf. Al Shepard even took a golf club up to the Moon. How middle class is that?) They don’t look like Janis Joplin fans and probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.

→ Continue reading: Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

Don’t think of it as a “power cut”, think of it as an “electricity holiday”

The BBC reports that the National Grid will “learn the lessons” after nearly one million people across England and Wales lost power on Friday.

But what lessons will those be?

The power outage happened at about 17:00 BST on Friday, National Grid said, with blackouts across the Midlands, the South East, South West, North West and north east of England, and Wales.

Industry experts said that a gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, failed at 16.58, followed two minutes later by the Hornsea offshore wind farm disconnecting from the grid.

The National Grid director of operations quoted in this BBC article, Duncan Burt, has said that “he did not believe that a cyber-attack or unpredictable wind power generation were to blame”.

I do not know whether to disbelieve his disbelief. Those concerned with managing the UK’s power supply might have good reasons to keep mum about our vulnerability to cyber attack, and less good reasons for playing down the unpredictability of wind power.

Tim Worstall speculates,

One reading could be……wind farm closes down immediately as wind speed is too high. Gas plant on idle can’t spin up for some reason. Drax is low capacity because it’s burning wood chips, not coal.

On the cyber front, even if this power outage was entirely an Act of God in the insurance sense, the next one might not be. The bad guys have seen how much more damaging power cuts have become now that we are so reliant on the internet. As cashless payments become more common it will only get worse. I love cashless payments! What bliss to no longer have to worry about finding change when you’ve just found the last space in a crowded car park, manoeuvred into it with incredible difficulty while holding up the rest of the traffic, and only then remembered that you have to pay for the damn thing. But an entirely cashless society, as they seem to be moving towards in Sweden, might turn out to have its Orwellian nature tempered only by its lack of resilience.

A final observation: I have read a lot of comments from supporters of remaining in the European Union along the lines of “You think a few hours delay on the railways was bad? Just you wait until we leave the EU without a deal.” However, just as with the chaos caused by the Gatwick drone shutdown, that argument cuts both ways. All their frantic efforts to say “No Deal” must not be allowed to happen because it will cause vast queues at the ports and airports start to look a little silly when the same consequences seem likely to arise every time the wind surges or a cyber attacker gets lucky.

Water shortages solved

Today’s quote of the day was from a longer conversation about water, starting with the conventional wisdom that climate change will inevitably lead to global water shortages. It is not immediately obvious why this should be so, given that melting ice, for example, presumably leads to there being more non-frozen water about.

The impression from the mainstream media is that any water-related problem can be caused by climate change. Floods? Climate change. Drought? Climate change. A summary from NASA suggests that some places, the places that get plenty of rain, will get more rain: so much that it floods. And other more typically dry places will see more droughts. So there is not necessarily a contradiction. On the other hand it is not clear how reliable such predictions are.

Different climate models provide different answers about what will happen to rainfall where. You can almost pick the result you want for a particular place by picking which climate model you want to listen to. You can take the mean of all the model outputs but that only seems useful if they all broadly agree, and even then they could all be wrong. The question of the usefulness of climate models is a big topic. The way they are tuned seems to allow for a lot opportunity for bias to creep in. Also the resolution of GCMs is not high, and the resolution affects the results, especially for precipitation.

In any case, there is a practically unlimited supply of water in the oceans, it is simply a matter of energy to turn it into drinking water and transportation to get it where we need it. With photo-voltaic panels becoming cheaper and more efficient as solar generation capacity has been growing exponentially for the last 25 years, energy is cheap. For desalination there is not even an energy storage problem, since we can make water during the day and water is easy to store. The technology is effective, simple and cheap.

As for transportation, I have heard there is some new technology called an aqueduct.

So there are no technical difficulties, it is not particularly expensive, and with poverty on its way out there seems little to stop any water supply problems from being solved.

As Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, put it, we will reach the “jaws of death – the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs”. It was ever thus. Luckily the action is not difficult.

Samizdata quote of the day

If private companies sold people water, they would regard high levels of demand as a market opportunity. When the government runs water systems, high levels of demand mean shortages. It’s insane. Instead of finding good ways to meet demand with technology, we get price distortion, rationing, and glum pronouncements about the sins of mankind.

– Perry Metzger, reacting to this drivel.

Samizdata quote of the day

“We didn’t always know it at the time, but Hong Kong has been a kind of bellwether for the state of freedom in the wider world.”

Tyler Cowen.

He’s right, which is why, despite the mockers, I am writing about this topic quite a bit and intend to keep doing so.